What It Takes to Quit Football

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: I think if you play football at a high level you’re probably a little bit crazy because you know if you ask a random person on the street would you run out another grown man you’re 250 pounds or 300 pounds he’s running 70 miles per hour you’re running 20 miles per hour would you do that repeatedly. Would you do that 50 times a game. Most of them would tell you know like crazy but that’s what we do.

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S3: Joshua Perry is six foot four and two hundred and fifty five pounds and up until July of last year he was an NFL linebacker at 24 years old. Just after two years into his pro career he announced during pre-season that he was going to be retiring.

S4: That’s the kind of decision that would shock a lot of football fans. But to Joshua it’s more shocking that people like him don’t walk away.

S5: I’m a minutes made and you’re listening to man up on this show every week. We tell honest stories about our lives and investigate where we get our ideas about what it means to be a man.

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S3: Playing football well obviously hurts. It’s so much a part of the game that in 2016 Sports Illustrated ran this glamorous cover story about all the various ways that players cope. They cheekily called it. You think your Monday suck. Some quote stuck with me like this one from Mark Easley. He said Everyone’s hurting and you don’t feel normal until after the season. But when we think about football that’s kind of a back of mind thought for most of us. We see and read about concussions and big injuries sure but the everyday physical toll is staggering.

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S6: I had the separated shoulder injury. I’ve had countless knee injuries I’ve had bone bruises on both knees got a mangled finger right not wrist injuries aplenty. I had a couple of surgeries they weren’t very big at all. Nothing where I had to spend the night at the hospital.

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S7: Four NFL players. That’s just the job every time a football player steps onto the field for either a match up for a practice. They’re putting themselves at serious risk. So why.

S8: While Joshua says that he was built for it I started playing football in the fourth grade when my family moved to central Ohio and so football for me was actually a way to meet friends and kind of experience a new community. And being in elementary school it’s always tough kind of meeting people and you know kids don’t kind of have that skill set yet to really reach out and kind of find common ground and so I think sports was one of the ways and then it was something I enjoyed doing it was something I got pretty good at.

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S1: Why football not soccer or hockey or anything else.

S9: Well because I was a bigger kid and so it just made sense. What I loved most was that I was faster than almost everybody I was playing with so I was really good at it like I’m being completely honest there.

S3: Yeah I can. I know exactly what you mean when I was in high school I hit my growth spurt really really early so when I was playing basketball my friends I had like a good foot advantage on all of them. And so was just a huge confidence booster for me especially going into this environment where I wanted people’s respect and basketball was one of the ways that I got that. Is that how you kind of feel about football.

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S9: Yeah. It’s really interesting that you say that like part of it is respect and I think a lot of it when somebody doesn’t know you like you’re the new kid on the team. As I was like part of the respect that you earned from your peers is how good you are as you know as you go through junior high and high school you earned clout basically through being good at sports.

S1: Yeah but you didn’t start in high school or junior high. I read somewhere that you started when you were nine years old. Yeah.

S9: And like I think that it’s the same thing for nine year olds like I think more so in high school with like nine year olds are going to judge you based off how good you are too. And it’s just really weird how just kind of our nature as humans we will not prejudge people based off of a certain skill set that we think they have before we know what kind of teammate they are what kind of person they even are.

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S1: Yeah I know that resonates hard with me. So can you walk me through your earliest memory of getting hurt while playing sports.

S10: Boy the first injury I truly remember was eighth grade it was like the first one that really kept me out for a long time. I broke my collarbone. We were playing at an away game and I was running the ball.

S8: I got tackled landed right on my shoulder like two guys brought me down right on my shoulder and I felt that initial pain.

S11: I didn’t realize how severe the injury was and so I kept playing like the next two series before it was just too much and I told my coach I’m like I can’t go anymore and I hop on the bus we take the bus back to the school I get off and my parents immediately take me to the hospital and my shoulder is puffy and swollen like just that experience right there of initially just trying to push through and not knowing what it was and not being in tune with my body to go into the hospital and realizing how severe it was was kind of interesting to me.

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S3: Why is that interesting why did you want to keep playing even though you were hurt.

S11: Well you know it’s what they they teach you there’s you know. They say it to kids at a young age like in college your coach will tell you were in high school your coach tell you there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured. But when you say that to somebody who’s like twelve or thirteen years old. Like I don’t know what the difference between being hurt and being injured is. And that’s something that coaches say to get you to play through pain. And so to me I’m like Oh man. Like I’m just hurt right now. Let me try to play through this until you realize after taking some more hits like no I’m actually injured and I think it’s that no one does not understanding your body well. But number two is the fear of letting your team down because I was the best tool we had on offense I was a tackle machine on defense even that young of an age. And I just knew that my team was not going to have a very good chance to win the game if I went out. So just again that mentality of team before self and kind of get you caught up sometimes.

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S12: Yeah. Why you’re saying that I’m remembering all the times on the playground that I’ve heard no pain no gain or no blood no foul. I feel like pain is part of the game. So for me it’s really hard to pass wanting to protect yourself and take your health seriously when at the same time you’re in a way conditioning yourself to work through pain and to not feel the pain in a way put the team on your back.

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S9: And it’s interesting when you talk about like conditioning yourself to work through the pain because I can just remember times in high school and in college like the actual strength and conditioning aspect where it’s like they’ll push you to the brink and you’re over there killed over your legs feel like they’re about to explode you can’t hardly breathe and then they just make you do more reps to like train your mind. I know that’s different because in that instance you’re not hurt you’re not necessarily endangered is just your mind is like there’s just so much sensory overload going on that you feel like you can’t go anymore but you can but where that becomes dangerous is when you’re in the heat of the moment playing the game your journal ends up you’ve got endorphins going and then you actually do get hurt. Countless times I’ve seen it happen but after the game a guy realizes he fractured his wrist or you know like you go and get an MRI after the game you have a lacerated kidney you just thought you know you got hit in the gut really hard and it’s just stuff like that broken ribs I’ve had before. You just play through. You don’t realize until after the game where you can’t hardly breathe without hurting that you’re in as much pain as you’re actually in what you.

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S11: You broke your ribs and played through Yeah I had fractured ribs in college and it’s one of those injuries where it’s not going to heal very easily anyway. So that’s an easy one to say I’m just going to play through it yeah.

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S12: So when I played football in high school obviously not at the same level that you’re playing at our coaches we’re trying to train us to tackle. I have a very strong vivid memory where a coach got really upset at me because I maybe was holding back a little bit when I was throwing myself at the pylon. I put my arms to the ground so I can catch myself. And he got really pissed. I was like Yo Eyman stop doing that. Wrap around swing around like focus on the pylon focus on the tackle. And my instinct was trying to catch my fault like so I don’t fall as hard. And that really pissed me off. I wonder if there’s anything specific about the way football is played that maybe conditioned you to not put your safety first.

S9: It’s always funny like now that you say that people football people will try to convince you and I think part of it’s true and part of it’s like an over exaggeration to get guys to let loose a little bit more but you know if you if you play the game tip toe and you’re more likely to get hurt and I understand that but at the same time like I’m a firm believer that part of the reason why certain injuries exist in football and not the only reason why. But part of the reason why they exist is because kids are reckless or you know whoever it is teenagers grown men playing football are reckless a lot of times and is not the initial hit where you tackle somebody and you make that initial contact body the body that is the hit that does it. It might be the one where you make that initial contact and then you fall awkwardly on the ground that might give you the concussion that might you know make you spring your ankle that might make you dislocate your elbow or whatever it is. And I feel like for me when I talk about. Kids playing football when I talk about my future children if they ever want to play football the first thing I would do is put them in a gymnastics or tumbling class because they would learn how to fall properly and they would learn how to control their core and they would learn fine motor skills that would help them transition into being more graceful athletes. And again like the proper method of tackling that we’ve started to learn is what they use in rugby and Australian rules where they don’t wear all the same padding they put their head behind instead of their head in front. They wrap the legs and they roll and by doing that you actually can protect your body in ways you keep your head out of the tackle. And it’s a more actually a more effective tackling method but you know the old school like you’re talking about they would put up a bag they would have you run to the bag like head on not even taking an angle or anything just straight up put your face on it wrap your arms around it drive your legs and then like pummel it into the ground and just like doing the research that’s a hard hit but it’s just it’s not a safe hitting and it’s not necessarily an effective hit either. So I think reworking that framework of how we teach contact and then also how we teach kids to go to the ground. I think that would make for a safer game.

S12: Yeah. The latter way you described how to tackle is exactly the education that I got when I was playing football. I had a coach who specifically told me to use my my helmet as a weapon. He pointed at the guy holding the ball and said look you see where the hands are wrapped around the ball that’s where your head goes. He was trying to get me to knock the ball loose to get like a fumble.

S9: So typical. It’s exactly what you hear. You put your face on the ball which if you’re in a what we call a phone booth. So you have a running back head on and you’re a tackler from the head on position. It’s not necessarily as dangerous because your neck is is strong when it’s going head on if your head is up. If your eyes are up. Then your neck is technically strong. It’s not so dangerous if your head is down it’s game over you can literally paralyze yourself.

S12: I’m wondering how that mentality translates off the field right you’re on the field you’re you’re being taught to use your body as a weapon to be a little bit more reckless and sacrifice your body for the team to make that tackle. How does that translate off the field. How does that mentality influence you to handle your own health.

S9: It hardens you emotionally. So instead of being in tune with your emotions instead of being able to have some deep hard conversations about things that you’re feeling you tend to wrap that up because like you want to be the best guy in the team you want to have the most rushing stats etc. Well now off the field it’s like I’m the man on the field so I need to be the man off the field so like you know I want to see how much I can get away with in class like I want to see how much I don’t have to turn in my homework like I want to see how many girls I can try to get with type deal but also like you’ll completely ignore things like you will you will ignore your conscience telling you that you need to take care of yourself a little bit better and I feel like that is one of the worst places to be in.

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S12: Opening up sounds like a tall order especially for someone who spent much of their life projecting this version of themself that was like big man on campus don’t you think.

S11: Yeah. I mean you have to learn how to open up though I mean if anybody out here has watched the Sopranos like Tony Soprano going to his therapist is what a lot of guys are like. You know you go through the mood swings you feel like you’re crazy. You want to lash out at times you don’t want to open up but you can go to a therapist and nobody has to know that you’re talking to a shrink. And so you can be as fragile and delicate in open and emotional as you want to be and then if you want to be harder on your friends you can be harder on your friends. But at least you have whatever it is the one or two hours a week as an outlet for somebody to hear what you’re going through and then to be able to counsel you through it.

S1: Yeah. So obviously I want to talk to you about the big fact and that you retired at 24 after just two years of being in the pros. So I read that was because of the concussions that you suffered you suffered six concussions can you first talk to me about what happened during your first concussion in the NFL. What was it like. What do you remember. Yeah.

S10: So the first concussion I suffered in my football career document it was in high school and it was a play where I was going to tackle a guy and he fell like right on top of me as I was tackling him and my my helmet accelerated into the turf and I was like out of it. Dazed and Confused. And we had a an athletic trainer on the sideline who’s qualified and trained to be able to spot concussions etc. So pulled me out. Thing that might have been my sophomore year in high school I had another one my junior season right before that.

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S1: Before that you said documented. What does that mean exactly.

S9: Oh yeah. So for people who don’t know like there’s the concussions that are documented like I said this guy was qualified to diagnose a concussion to spot it on the field. But I mean all those years when I was in Little League where they didn’t have an athletic training staff out there all the time that I was in middle school where they didn’t have qualified concussion spotters are really you know it wasn’t as big of a hot button issue to talk about. I probably had suffered some concussions like there were the plays where you quote unquote get your bell rung and you know you kind of dusted off a little bit and maybe you go off to the sideline catch your breath and get a drink of water and you feel competent enough to go back in the game.

S10: There are probably a couple of those situations that happen up until that point but my first one that was documented on paper was my sophomore year in high school I think I another one my junior year then freshman sophomore year of college I suffered two more concussions in that time span. And then the end of my second pre-season in the NFL I had one coming up training camp and then finally in training camp my third pre-season in the NFL was my sixth one and the conversation really shifted after my second pre-season when I had that fifth concussion I had a conversation with some loved ones about what should I do from here and how should I proceed and any doctor will tell you the risks of playing having had concussions but they’ll also tell you that it’s your decision. If you feel good right now you don’t know what it’s gonna be like down the line it could be good it could be bad. They’ll tell you you have no signs of any lasting issues your brain scans look fine etc. And so it’s up to you to make that choice.

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S13: For me after the fifth one that’s when the conversation happened. I had the sixth one that’s when I just knew like I had it that day like the next day I was maybe two days after that I was sitting up with the GM of the Seahawks telling them that I was done playing football my career was over.

S14: How would you describe getting a concussion. Like what. What is that experience like.

S8: I think it was a little bit different every time. I think some of them were more dramatic than others like you. You immediately get hit and you’re like Dazed Confused Your head hurts automatically there were other ones where you get hit and then you go back in play and then you come off to the sideline and you’re blanking out from like the last two three four plays that just happen like you can’t remember a thing and that’s when it kind of sets on. But to describe it it would be mental fog probably was the biggest thing that I experienced and I’m generally a pretty clear thinker but mental fog was big for me. The headaches obviously were a thing to be concerned with but also I think my mood and my demeanor would change drastically from being like a pretty pretty excitable guy. Very positive outlook to just kind of like dumped you like I would feel dumpy when I was concussed. That’s pretty typical where people have mood swings they don’t feel very good in terms of their their disposition or even some people get angry and aggressive. And I never was aggressive but like sometimes I would just be angry like you know somebody asked me a question I’ll be mad like just stop asking me stupid ask questions right now type stuff.

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S9: So it’s interesting how it shows up and it’s different for everybody and I would say out of six concussions I couldn’t point to two that were exactly alike.

S1: I mean I think the way you described it earlier is having your bell rung. I thought that was very graphic. Was there any one exact particular moment that you knew that it was time to walk away. I think the moment was just sitting in the hotel room in the dark just kind of headache in just a little bit foggy and I’m like in.

S8: I’m like okay I’ve done this so many times like how many more times can I realistically do this like if it was an ankle a knee a shoulder it would be different because I’m like man I’m big and strong I can work back from this you know I’ll lift weights harder this is preventative I can do pre have in rehab to make sure this doesn’t happen again I’m sitting here like okay there’s no prefab exercises for concussions like there’s not a thing I can do to strengthen up my brain so it doesn’t get hurt again like this is it’s almost a hopeless injury to that point like when it gets to that extent you’re just sitting there like I don’t know what to do. Like I don’t know if I can will myself into sustaining this trauma and then trying to heal it again and I think that’s probably one of the hardest things but just sitting there in the dark thinking about that it’s like alright it’s about that time early we were talking about how important respect was for you and this idea of not wanting to let your team down.

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S1: Did you feel like you had to work through any of those ideas.

S8: I feel like the concussion thing for me was always a like Damn your respect I really don’t care at this point I need to take care of my brain I had earned the respect of my peers at just about every level I mean when I was in high school I was a captain when I was in college I was a captain when I was in the NFL I ended up leading my team in special teams tackles as a rookie like I was just earning my stripes kind of guy but when it came to my brain health I was like I really like Sorry guys you’re gonna have to go out there and get it without me because you know 20 30 40 50 years from now if I have any repercussions from these these brain injuries like none of y’all are going to be sitting by my hospital bed rooting me on and patting me on the back anymore is just going to be a memory from the past it’s faded.

S10: Did anyone tell you not to quit the people who I trusted and talked to before that decision was my mom and dad my girlfriend and my agent. The only thing that they said is Are you sure. Because they know the type of guy that I am. Yeah. And how much football meant to me. They just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to regret walking away but nobody said you shouldn’t do it. Or I guess you look at Twitter and Instagram and there are folks who would be like you gave up an opportunity of a lifetime or they’ll call you soft or you know they’ll say your career wasn’t very good anyway nobody’s gonna miss you etc. etc. and you can say whatever you want but that’s why you don’t trust people like that with decisions that are so important.

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S1: I keep thinking about Andrew Luck and when he retired from his injuries I mean he did get support for his decision. Probably more support than he would have gotten in a decade ago but still I mean his fans booed him for coming off the field in pre-season.

S11: I got it and I just feel like I’ll say this. I played in Indianapolis. I think the character of the fans there is different than what was represented by them booing but like they were out of pocket booing like that I think some of the responses were you know people or he’s soft in all this set in the third and you’re gonna throw away that much money and you know you should be in the prime of your career and it’s like OK so y’all are gonna sit here and you’re gonna blame him for every injury that he had the lacerated kidney the ankle calf thing he had concussion so many things you could point to that are reasons why he sustained those injuries are O-line that he had was absolutely trash was 100 percent trash and then you could probably say that he fell victim to the the tough guy mentality because he was probably one of the only quarterbacks in the NFL that was subjecting himself to some of the hits that he took and he would get up after every single one unless it was something like really wrong with him. And so I just I think the mentality has to shift as a whole. And most people did a great job with it. But anybody that would say that he was soft is out of their damn mind because there are very few people who could experience that type of trauma and physical pain and then try to respond and rebound the way that he had throughout his career mostly people calling him soft probably get a paper cutter a hangnail and be over there piss and moan and cry and so it’s just it’s super strange to me how people that have that they don’t belong in a certain space still find their way into that space.

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S14: One point that I think is really interesting is the amount of conditioning that we emphasize like specifically on teaching student athletes to work through pain and to put their pain aside for the sake of the sport and that in order to excel at any given sport you needed to work through a lot of pain. That’s sort of the name of the game and this feels like what your decision. The decision kind of worked against that like there it feels like there’s a gap between how you felt your entire career getting up after concussions going to the sideline taking a sip of water to now deciding OK. My health actually is more important than this game. Who cares about touchdowns. My brain is more important. How does one person go from from that first stage to the next it’s interesting because they preach that no pain no gain thing from really the first time you start working out.

S8: I think for me at least concussion wise it was different than you know a bone injury or soft tissue injury. I think concussion wise you I feel like the risks are more known for other injuries like I’ve got a shoulder injury I talked about earlier but you know it’s going to be arthritic. I’ve got my right hand is already arthritic just from injuries I sustained I knew that was going to happen that was like a truly known risk but there is so much research still to be done over concussions that it’s hard to evaluate. Like when you make these types of decisions you evaluate your current state what you’re going to be like when you get back in the game and then what is going to be the long term consequence of repercussion for your decision and the. It was easy to say OK right now I feel awful. Two weeks from now I’m going to feel just like my old self. But then when you say down the line How am I going to feel and you’re like I don’t know. And I feel like that’s the how it was easy for me to go against the grain of this. No pain no gain it’s like yeah I get that. But.

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S10: This when I’m right my arthritis for example that’s pain I can deal with the amount of physical pain that comes with it but can I deal with memory loss can I deal with depression can I deal with bouts of of rage and anger. You know can I deal with like being in the middle of a sentence and then completely losing my train of thought. It’s absolutely not. I just can’t do that.

S1: So I think how do we do that though how did you overcome that bias.

S9: It just to me I felt like I felt two things that no one that my long term health was more important than playing a game that I loved and that was a really hard decision. But the other thing and I think this is where a lot of guys lack and this is a completely different conversation we could probably have another day. But you know guys can’t walk away from the paycheck. That’s part of the issue in the NFL is guys just can’t walk away from the money. I could walk away from it because I feel like I can make a lot of money doing other things. And until we put the pressure on institutions until we put the pressure on athletes in general to do better for themselves academically into plan for careers outside of their professional sport that they think they’re going to excel at. You know I didn’t anticipate my career was only going to be two years. I thought I was gonna be a six to eight year guy in the NFL but I was prepared to make a transition. Guys aren’t ready to do that and that is a huge disservice to them because then they end up pushing through injuries that shouldn’t push through and then you know you look down the line 40 years and these guys are a shell of themselves and they look beat up and they look battered and you know they just can’t help themselves.

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S14: Yeah yeah but not even just in football you find guys who hurt themselves and deny it and don’t want to acknowledge how their bodies are hurt just because they feel like they as a man have to. Like I’ve done that. I recently broke my arm because of skateboarding and I just carried on doing the thing that I had to do because a part of me felt like that’s just what men do. You have to just work through it.

S8: Yeah. And it’s interesting too like you know you get some of these old school blue collar guys and they’re the same way. It’s like you know my chest hurts but I’m not going to go to the doctor like exam. I’ve had chest pain before I’ll take an ibuprofen. The next thing you know someone who’s got lung cancer or you know there’s chest pains not a big deal and next thing you know they’re suffering a heart attack right. In those like not to be dramatic but those are the type of things that literally kill people is like I’m tough enough on macho I don’t need to see a doctor it’s like well yeah you’re not going to see a doctor you’re gonna see a mortician because you’ll be dead right.

S1: Do you still watch football. What do you do on Sundays.

S10: That’s my whole job now Saturdays Sundays.

S9: I am on a local radio station in Columbus Ohio. I cover NFL football on Tuesday nights. I cover college football Wednesday nights and then I work with Big Ten Network on Fridays and Saturdays so I cover college football throughout the Big Ten.

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S12: That’s interesting though that you’re still watching football. But I mean you still probably see people hitting each other really hard. Like the way you described it 300 pound guy running 15 miles an hour I mean a shower you know I’d be cringing. I don’t know if I’d be able to watch that.

S11: The shame of it all is I enjoy it.

S15: It’s it’s so crazy.

S6: And I was able to remove myself from that environment but at the end of the day there there’s a certain reason we watch football and everybody regardless if you’re a football fan you enjoy the big hits. And so I sit there I consume I don’t cringe. And the reason I’ll tell you the reason I don’t cringe is because it’s a known risk. And my story was on the Today show Andrew Luck stories been all over every Dag on media outlet. Guys know the risk and they know they can walk away from the game and they make a decision not to and it’s not an indictment on anybody. And as long as they choose to stay in the game I’m going to consume and enjoy it from the viewpoint that all of these guys are enjoying their experience in that they’re willingly there and they’re happy about it.

S7: And that’s the show here. Man up. We love getting emails and voicemails and we’d love to hear from you too. Got your own football story. Maybe you hurt yourself and try to play through it. Leave a message at 8 or 5 6 2 6 8 7 0 7 that’s 8 0 5 men up 0 7. Or you can e-mail us at man up at Slate scum and let us know if you have any more topics that you’d like us to discuss in the show. If you’d like this episode consider supporting the kid and leave review Apple podcasts or wherever you like to listen. But more importantly we need you to subscribe.

S5: We’ve got new shows coming out every week and I’d hate for you to miss one. Man up is hosted and written by me. A man’s mind. Produced by Cameron Drews. It’s executive produced by Jeffrey Bloomer and Lowe and Lew Gabriel Roth is editorial director of Slate podcasts. In June Thomas is a senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. We’ll be back next week with more man up.